“I hate the word fusion,” says Barbara “Sky” Burrell with a smile, sitting at a patio table in a hidden garden behind a row of tidy Pico Boulevard storefronts. “That word doesn’t mean anything to me.”
Fusion doesn’t begin to describe the menu at Sky’s Gourmet Tacos, Barbara’s nickname-eponymous restaurant that has been serving Mid-City customers for 25 years (it’ll be 26 in a week). Despite the name and much of the menu Sky’s isn’t an upscale restaurant, nor is it really Mexican by any stretch. There’s a soul food backbone to the place, with a menu that dances around ribs and lemonade and ground turkey and grilled shrimp, but this isn’t a modern soul food spot, either. Sky’s is none of the above, and a whole lot more as a result. “I just try to do my own thing,” Burrell adds. That sounds about right.
A Midwestern native whose father is a legendary musician, Burrell spent formative years in and around Chicago. Tacos were far from a staple, but even all those decades ago it was possible to reach into the more Mexican enclaves of the city for a taste of tortilla, meat, and cheese. Rather than fixating on the purity of any one menu item, Burrell found herself drawn to the expansive opportunities that that a taco offers. Wes Avila has his sweet potato and feta cheese taco at Guerrilla; Sky has had marinated lobster with shredded lettuce and sassy sauce for a quarter-century.
Burrell’s restaurant journey isn’t the traditional one by any stretch, and it never even weaves through a traditional commercial kitchen. “I had been an executive with McDonald’s Corporation, but I knew I had to do something else,” she says of her time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. “So I quit my job, and I just partied for nine months straight. At the end I knew I needed to find something for me, something different, so I prayed a novena for nine days straight, and at the end I said ‘I’m going to do tacos.’ But all I had was $2,000 and a vision.”
Within days, Burrell had secured her tight little space on Pico Boulevard, right next to auto body shops. She splurged on a Wolf range in lieu of an expansive (or entirely legal) interior build-out, and opened Sky’s Gourmet Tacos on March 5, 1992. “This is the place I picked.” She gestures at the room, and her hands can almost touch from wall to wall. “Don’t you just love it?”
In a city that so often punishes novice operators with unseen red tape, bad marketing, and lost margins, Burrell’s little slice of Pico Boulevard thrived. After the first year, despite dancing around the city’s building permit process, she had enough money saved to firm up her kitchen and hone in on what works best. That meant supplying the growing community — part black, part Latino, part white — with flavors that met their needs directly. A little bit of soul food here, a little bit of shredded yellow cheese there, some carne asada. It’s not fusion if it’s authentic to the community that’s eating it.
Today’s booming South LA food scene owes a tremendous debt to Sky Burrell’s little shop east of Hauser Boulevard, whether they know it or not. Keith Garrett of All Flavor No Grease may never have stepped foot inside, but his ground beef and shrimp quesadillas — served to thousands of fans (and plenty of celebrities) every month — show the same kind of heart, the same attention to flavor, as anything to be found on Sky’s menu. The difference is, she’s been doing it since almost before Garrett or Taco Mell or Mr. Fries Man were born.
So what does the future look like for a quarter-century-old non-traditional taco shop with almost no social media presence, operating in a neighborhood that is now surrounded on all sides with million-dollar homes and the incoming threat of greater development? Burrell couldn’t care less. She doesn’t own the building that Sky’s is in, but she does own the one next door, where she sits in the backyard garden now, smiling over the word fusion. “I’ll pull everything out of the kitchen if I have to,” she says wryly, “and cook right here. My customers would find me.”
In truth, they may not need to look that far, even if she does pull up roots. A lease has become available just down the street; it’s an attractive option in an only slightly more modern building, promising increased square footage, better visibility from the street, and a chance to keep growing, to simply keep going. Burrell has the kind of glint in her eye that hints at her unending willingness to shake up the box she’s found herself holding, just to lose the old, loose parts that had been sitting around inside.
In the meantime there is the marketplace in Marina del Rey to keep her attention, and the bright pink food truck she keeps offsite now except for catering gigs. Burrell has also just cut the ribbon on another new taco and market space at 5200 Century Boulevard in the former Bizzy B’s Cafe, right near LAX. The opening last week held 200 people, with Burrell in the middle of it all, smiling and shaking hands in a chef’s coat she clearly never wears. Appearances aren’t everything, attitude is.
And so just like everything else in Barbara “Sky” Burrell’s life, from the unassuming storefront on Pico Boulevard to the discussion of what makes a taco a taco, to future plans in new locations, to those obscure open-faced lobster burritos folks seem to like so much, the old adage keeps humming true: It’s what’s inside that counts. That’s where authenticity lives. Everything else is just fusion.
Sky’s Gourmet Tacos
5408 W. Pico Blvd.
Los Angeles, CA